Shortcake #14 – “Fusion”

The evening is slowly drawing to a close and becomes a night and I’m sitting here in my new apartment… tired, but glad. With all my possessions still bagged, or boxed and evenly distributed all over the place I thought it was a good idea to whip out my laptop from underneath al the rubble and christen the apartment by writing a post… because why the hell not.Therefore, a nice short text was in order and I knew exactly what to write about.

A few days back I noticed on my facebook feed that my favourite kiwi film-makers have been up to something lately and I promptly decided to check it out. It’s been available online for little more than two weeks already, but in case you haven’t seen it yet, drop whatever it is you’re doing and watch “Fusion” – a fresh short from Sideways Productions, created by Allan George and Ben Fowler. Since I think I know what to expect from a guy like Allan, there was little debate whether “Fusion” would be any good. His “Sounds Perfect” still remains a short that I re-watch periodically for good fun and my spidey-sense kept telling me “Fusion” was going to blow me away. But I have to say that my expectations weren’t all that sky-high, because I didn’t want to build up myself up for the film not to live up to them, but I think I can now put my doubts to bed and say it once and for all – whatever these guys make is pure gold. Full stop.

 

There’s no discussion here – “Fusion” is a perfect 6.5 minutes of hilarious comedy that not only kept the style I loved so much from “Sounds perfect”, but came up with an outrageously humorous concept, and then ran with it. Seriously, I have no clue what’s going on in Allan’s mind at any given time and I’m a bit scared of the level of positive insanity resting in this guy’s head, but he knows comedy and has a grasp on film-making that can leave me lying on the floor (literally) laughing my behind off.

Now, “Fusion” is a concise story where – again in a pseudo-documentary style – we come across a disturbingly awkward fella, who invents things by taking two known things and merging them into a brand new hybrid thing; fusing the nation together… And that’s enough to make me wet myself. The superb acting and a ridiculous concept (how do you come up with these things anyway, Allan?) is more than enough here to create a short to remember. Need I say more? Of course, I could get into details of how I loved the cinematography (because I did) or the quirky protagonist, but the bottom line is – I haven’t had a laugh of that calibre in weeks now. I don’t exactly know what it is, but you guys make these films in a way that always gets me. Now, if you excuse me, I’ll go and hit the hay… In my bitchen…

“Man of Steel” – Kneel before Zod!

Now that’s a summer movie I’ve been waiting for! In reality I could end the review right now, because I have just shown my hand and, quite honestly, no amount of words will convey how awesome “Man of Steel” really is. Nonetheless, I think I’d like to say a little bit more on the subject.

Following yesterday’s screening of the long-awaited reboot of the Superman franchise I was so pumped I had serious difficulties focusing my thoughts enough to write the review and I spent a better part of the evening listening to the excerpts from the Hans Zimmer’s score to “Man of Steel” (which is epic, by the way, and come Monday there is no force in the universe that could stop me from buying the CD) wearing my Superman T-Shirt and feeling awesome and invincible. And before I get to the nitty gritty, I just wanted to say that this is what a superhero film is supposed to do to you; it ought to be the definition of ‘awesome’, epic and unforgettable. Clearly, Shane Black could learn a thing or two from Zack Snyder, because “Man of Steel” is everything that “Iron Man 3” isn’t. While it certainly has its flaws, which I’ll discuss later on, the film delivers on almost all fronts by being respectful to the iconic stature of Superman in pop-culture and all the while elevating his story to the proper modern standard.

The origin stories in superhero universes are almost invariably awkward – just as adolescence is in real life, I presume. In them one needs to provide enough background information for the story to actually count as an origin, but it needs to be done with some class so that it’s not heavy-handed. We all know how easy it is to desensitize the viewer by overloading him with data (“Oblivion” and “After Earth”, I’m looking at you, guys) and going for a sloppy brush-over job is not going to cut it any longer; it’s not the 70’s any more and we have the technical capabilities to give Kal-El a proper background story, without the cheap crystals, sheets and bathrobes. Moreover, “Man of Steel” – whilst clunky in the beginning in delivering the actual background – did give Superman solid foundation in his universe with very vivid interpretation of his home planet Krypton and the plot that led him to Earth.

man-of-steel-poster-2

In that spirit – for those who are unaware – it all begins on a distant planet Krypton. Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) is born and it is a special affair. I shan’t reveal why that is, because by some it might be seen as a minor twist in the movie, but the newly born Kal-El needs to be protected at all cost. More so because his father – being an important figure in the governing structures – discovers that Krypton has become unstable and is going to explode, thus claiming lives of its inhabitants. No-one, including the ruling council, believes Jor-El’s gruesome revelations, apart from General Zod (Michael Shannon) who stages a coup d’etat to ensure the planet’s survival. Jor-El doesn’t trust the young and ruthless general and refuses to join him. Despite all that, Zod with his insurgents carry on what they started, but Jor-El gets killed in the process. He does, however, ensure that his son is sent off in a capsule headed specifically to Earth. The revolution gets thwarted in the end, Zod and his henchmen banished, and Krypton – according to Jor-El’s predictions – meets its untimely demise.

When Kal-El lands on Earth (somewhere in Kansas) he is found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who adopt him as their son and name him Clark. As the boy grows up, his other-worldly powers start to surface and make Clark into a social outcast. After years of living in solitude, drifting through the world and living under various aliases, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) gets a shot at understanding his past, his powers and his reason to exist. He tags along as a technician on an expedition where a young and ambitious reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a possibly alien artefact frozen in polar ice for millennia, which will turn out vital for Kal-El to become what he needs to become. And little does he know, that once banished General Zod, now brutally scarred, betrayed and hungry for retribution has found Kal-El’s refuge and will stop at nothing in order to claim his revenge.

This is why I think origins stories are difficult to get right: it takes 350 words to summarize 25-30 minutes of a film and I think I held myself back a little with the details and intricacies of the story. I would certainly understand that to some people the first act of “Man of Steel” feels a bit out of tune and needs a bit of time to start rolling, and by the time the final act is upon us, it’s gleefully steam-rolling through the screen in a sensory overload of epic proportions. However, I found the first act quite pleasing, as the very details of Clark’s coming of age are delivered through flashbacks and dreams instead of a blatant biopic-like borefest. While this approach feels fragmented and slows down the pace, it never really hurts the story as a whole, because meanwhile we get to see how Clark slowly becomes Superman by gradually learning to understand and love the people of Earth. I personally loved, how Zack Snyder and Dave Goyer chose to deliver Superman’s mission. While Kal-El is far away from being dark and edgy, he is no longer the clumsy Clark Kent, as portrayed by the late Christopher Reeve – Henry Cavill’s Superman is no mere superhero… He is not your friendly boy scout, for he is a messiah. By the way, when Clark finally finds his roots, hones his powers and comes to terms with his mission in life, he is 33 years of age – just like Jesus… And his character is led more or less in a messianic way, with selfless choices and sacrifices he is willing to make.

But that is not the best part… The best part is that “Man of Steel” finally delivers a Superman that we needed. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate Chris Reeve’s classic Superman, but the forty years that stands between us make him look… cute and adorable… “Man of Steel” gives us a Superman that – no questions asked – is faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Henry Cavill’s Superman is the supersonic indestructible god it ought to have been for decades now. Thanks to technical advances in special effects, Superman is no longer a levitating guy in a red cape – he is a force of nature and any sequence with Kal-El in it is quite simply jaw-dropping. Indubitably, “Man of Steel” goes to ridiculous lengths to show us how gods would fight each other. Everything about this film is ultra-fast, massive, epic and packed with adrenaline. Whilst the first act is quite slow, dreamy, or even clunky, the remainder of the film compensates for it in a way you have never seen before.

On top of all that – the action and epic sequences – we can also find some solid acting in “Man of Steel”. Henry Cavill (first non-American to portray Superman) does a fantastic job at grounding Kal-El in the world he is in, so that it feels more natural to see him emerge as a god who would give his life to save his compatriots. While Cavill’s demeanour certainly fits the expectations, he surely doesn’t feel like a run-of –the-mill Chris Reeve lookalike, but breathes new life into Kal-El’s character and contributes vastly to the impact of “Man of Steel”. Amy Adams as Lois Lane very nicely adds to the picture. I didn’t seem to understand what her game really was for a while, because Lois Lane in “Man of Steel” is not just a damsel in distress any more (well, she is once or twice), but I think she is more of an embodiment of everything Kal-El is fighting for.

And the villain… Having a believable and scary villain in a movie is almost as important as getting your protagonist right. Michael Shannon as general Zod does a fine job creating a frightening and ultimately dangerous counter-balance to Kal-El. If it hadn’t been for certain one-liners and the initial insurgence plot-line, I would have thought Shannon’s Zod was close to the level of Ledger’s Joker, but he clearly had to grow into the boots he wore on the screen. While the older scary Zod is a fine villain and I have nothing against him, the younger Zod who revolted against Jor-El was quite artificial and laughable (almost like Commodus in “Gladiator”) and I couldn’t find him scary or threatening at all. On the other hand, that might have been the plan all along as Zod’s character seems to grow scarier in time, so that by the time we hit the climax, he’s got everything he needs. A late-blooming villain, but still…

In summary, “Man of Steel” has become my personal favourite Superman movie and it definitely is the biggest summer film for me. Well, until “Pacific Rim” is out, but that we shall see… Anyway, it is an all-round powerful sci-fi that recognises Superman’s mythos and is not afraid to bring something new to the table. The special effects are delicious and perfectly crafted and one can clearly notice someone has been taking notes from J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” with the lens flares, shooting against the light and super-zooming. Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon gave bang-on performances and only Russell Crowe looked to me as if he didn’t belong there quite as much. All this was covered with a thick layer of icing in a form of a powerful and truly epic score by Hans Zimmer, who has managed to slip in some uplifting crescendos in between the lines, so that the overall messianic feel of Superman’s mission was all the more elevated in the end.

By know I realized this article has become too long to be ended with finesse, so I shall say only this: “Man of Steel” turned out to be not only a great summer movie, not only a great Superman movie, but a very good movie in general. In fact, the film was so good that – contrary to what I normally say – I can’t wait to see the sequel…

 

 

“The Iceman” – A peek behind the mask of stone…

It’s amazing what a man is capable of in order to find his way in this vicious world. While I can certainly agree that it might come across as ludicrous to begin with such words in this case, but it is undeniable at this point that Richard Kuklinski’s life cannot be easily pigeon-holed. For those of you who are unable to identify Kuklinski at all, I think one can summarize his persona as one of the most successful and notorious murderers of the 20th century. Note here I refrained from labelling Kuklinski as a serial killer, because he might have been many things, but a serial killer he was definitely not, and “The Iceman” by a young director Ariel Vromen has made a wonderful job of making it clear.

I was never exactly sure what it was that somehow drew my curiosity towards serial killers and, more importantly, their minds. I should also add that it wasn’t the the sensational aspect of their grisly deeds that I find the most interesting, but I think it is fascinating to try and understand how a killer thinks and what it is that compels him to do his ‘work’. Therefore, I have been aware of Richard Kuklinski’s story for quite a while now (if you’re up for it, you can watch the HBO documentaries on Youtube wherein Kuklinski himself would divulge most intimate details about his life as a mob hitman) and hence I found the news of the story of his life being adapted for a film all the more enticing. After all, biopics are most often reserved for portraying lives of people who are interesting in a more conventional way.

“The Iceman” lets us have a closer look at how Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) became what he became, how he led his perfect double life, how he rose through the ranks and gained notoriety and how the house of cards he so meticulously built finally crumbled down. Quite fortunately, we do not have to follow Kuklinski’s life from cradle to grave (which is the cardinal sin of oh-so-many biographical pieces in my humble opinion), but instead we meet Kuklinski during his first date with Deborah (Winona Ryder) – the soon-to-be woman of his life. From that point onwards, we follow him up until his arrest in 1986. It would seem that his relationship with Deborah and his two daughters (the film makers didn’t include his third child in the picture for some weird reason) constitutes the very spine of the whole story, and understandably so, because they were the only people in the whole world that mattered to him after all.

THE-ICEMAN-Poster

Kuklinski wasn’t your regular average Joe and he certainly didn’t belong in the ‘privileged’ crowd. A son of an abusive Pole and an obsessively religious Irish mother (who actually believed that sparing the rod spoils the child) didn’t get the smoothest start into adulthood. With only elementary education his employment prospects looked particularly grim, so it did not take him long to work for the local kingpin Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). What started out as a menial job in pirating pornography, quickly turned into something more, as Demeo immediately noticed Kuklinski’s ruthless stone-cold character and put it to good use. Mind you that Kuklinski wasn’t somebody who would say ‘no’ – he wanted to ensure his family’s well-being at all cost. Porn-pirate to enforcer, enforcer to hitman… Snowballing towards his inevitable end…

Now, as I already mentioned, “The Iceman” is definitely not a regular biopic and shouldn’t be really perceived as such. It doesn’t retain the bog standard story arc, in which you’d normally expect the character to rise and fall, only to rise again in the uplifting fashion, but “The Iceman’s” arc is almost perfectly parabolic instead that ends on a moralistic note, so that we don’t get any crazy idea that the film would glorify Kuklinski’s life in any way. I think it is rather clear from the get-go that “The Iceman” is not supposed to build Kuklinski a monument, but it tries to peek behind the curtain and expose him a little more. I mean, he was undeniably a monster, but the film does manage to show that every monster would have a story to tell and behind the claws and razor-sharp teeth there’s flesh and blood.

And this is where the fantastic Michael Shannon comes into the frame. You should understand that at this point – after what I’ve seen – I could write sonnets about his portrayal of The Iceman and thanks to him, “The Iceman” has landed in my ‘top 3’ for this year so far. Indubitably, Shannon’s demeanour plays very well into his acting and he has managed to explore Kuklinski’s persona and empower it with minimalistic, cold and calculated acting. I just loved how Shannon’s character was only deceptively shallow and carved in stone and upon closer imagination was bursting with life and emotions hidden from the light of day. By the way, did you know that Kuklinski’s nickname ”The Iceman” did not originate from his cold and lifeless demeanour? Initially, the media coined this term, because Kuklinski used to freeze the bodies of his victims in order to confuse the forensic investigators. The fact he kept everything close to his chest and never showed emotions played into his creepy image quite incidentally, but in the end – extremely precisely.

 

Michael Shannon has succeeded in creating a multi-faceted three-dimensional character that exudes mystery and in itself was a riddle to solve by the viewer. His performance has made it impossible to further pigeon-hole Kuklinski together with Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Oh, no… he was a different kind of monster. A closer look at Shannon’s character allows the viewer to speculate on what Kuklinski was really hiding behind that mask of his. Between the idiosyncratic mannerisms, nefarious nerve twitches, brutally revealing flashbacks, disrespect to death, bottled-up rage, violent temper, unbelievable affection to his family, and the zealous devotion to concealing his true life of murderer for hire Shannon’s Kuklinski emerges as much more than just a hitman that claimed hundreds of human lives. The film does not allow the viewer to feel sorry for Kuklinski, but strips him off any supernatural qualities – after all, he was a man… Not a monster, not an incarnation of Satan, but a man who made a choice in his life and paid the price for it in the end. More importantly, Kuklinski was a man shaped by his past, but who also tried (and failed) to circumnavigate his inevitable doom.

When all is said and done, “The Iceman” is pretty much a one man show and I do not mean it in a negative sense. The story was maybe a bit erratic at times, but in the grand scheme of things, it was not pivotal to the film as a whole. I would even go as far as to say the story was only auxiliary to bring to the light the intricacies of Kuklinski’s character – and on that level it was simply perfect, thanks to Shannon’s powerhouse performance and Ryder’s very solid second violins. I don’t really think I could call “The Iceman” an anatomy of evil, or something equally pompous, but it does put a notorious character like Richard Kuklinski in a slightly different light that undeniably helps in understanding where monsters come from and how they hide in plain sight. Let’s not forget there are hundreds if not thousands of demons wandering the streets at any given moment and spotting them is not the easiest of tasks – after all they are masters of mimicry…

The M.Night Shyamalan Hate Club…

Unless you’ve been home-schooled, you are probably aware what bullying is. We all went through it at some stage of our lives, be it in schools, kindergartens, sandpits, colleges, universities (grad schools, I’m looking at you), or at work and we all fully comprehend how hurtful it is to be somebody’s target. And if you don’t understand it because you used to be (or even worse – still are) a bully yourself, then you sir are a douchenozzle and should be ashamed of yourself.

As I understand it, most of us have some sort of experiences in that regard. After all, we can usually identify a huge discrepancies in a given population between the bullies and the bullied – there’s always this one c**t in a given population that holds ransom an entire group of people, so, if my calculations are correct, chances are that most of us hate being ridiculed or otherwise abused. Then how is it possible that all of a sudden it gets so easy to hop on the hate train and participate in a heinous act of public humiliation? Is it the herd mentality or the illusion of anonymity that makes us all complicit in collective bashing of someone, just because it is trendy to do so?

night_shyamalan_01

I already glanced over the subject of the social status (or lack thereof) of M. Night Shyamalan’s – once great and promising young talent, now a pariah forever condemned by the same people who once loved him. Back in 1999 he made an astounding splash with his big budget début “The sixth sense” and there’s not a soul in the Internet who hasn’t seen it and/or doesn’t hold a strong opinion on this particular film. This revolting supernatural horror sporting a duo of Bruce Willis and a young Haley Joel Osment (who by the way hasn’t made much out of this initial splash) and the now iconic phrase ‘I see dead people’ managed to win over millions of people and garnered fantastic reviews. The producers made tonnes of money out of the deal and Shyamalan was on course to become a full-time dollar-printing machine.

And this is where everything went sideways… Even though his two follow-up features (“Unbreakable” and “Signs”, both of which I personally loved) were still critically acclaimed and in spite of fantastic box office returns, the venomous world of critics started voicing louder and louder that the supposedly great M. Night Shyamalan was a crook – a one-trick pony…  And it all went downhill from there. Now, riddle me this: where does the line between an auteur and a one-trick pony lie exactly? Well, let me help you:

Auteur – A film-maker  usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

One-trick pony – A person or a group noteworthy for only a single achievement, skill or characteristic.

The way I see it, at the end of the day it is down to a personal preference whether to label someone an auteur or a one-trick pony and it is most likely based on either an emotional relationship with one’s work or other external factors. So, is M. Night Shyamalan a one-trick pony?

MNS Chart 1

Let’s examine, shall we? Most if not all of his films deal with supernatural themes – check. All of them have a characteristic pace, minimalistic dialogue, moments of deafening silence and related elements of style – check. All of them sport a good deal of jump scares – check. All of them have twist endings – check. Wait, hang on… “The Sixth sense” – definitely a twist there… “Unbreakable” – sure, I’ll give you that; an ‘it was me all along’ twist… “Signs” – nah, not quite a twist… “The Village” – sure, a twist… “Lady in the water” – no twist… “The Happening” – if you think that’s a twist, then you’re your problem, not mine… “The Last Airbender” – haven’t seen it, sorry… “After Earth” – no sign of a twist anywhere…

To me it looks like the ‘dreaded trademark Shyamalan twist’ only makes an appearance in three of his films. But the critics will actually go out of their ways to point out he’s known for the abundant twist endings to his movies every time they get a chance – which is false. Unless, of course, the twist in “The sixth sense” has done you in so much that you can’t get over yourself anymore. And what’s wrong with twist endings anyway? One in four films that make it to the screen sports some sort of a twist (don’t have the numbers, don’t quote me on that) and we somehow unilaterally decided that it’s the Shyamalan’s twists that we are supposed to hate. Is it because none of the remaining two twist endings were anywhere near the level of the first one? Still good twists though… Maybe we should ostracise Steve Soderbergh for his twist endings as well, or David Fincher, or Ang Lee, or even better – Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Is it a sin to take after the great master in more than one regard? Is it not tactful any longer? Especially that in his early films Shyamalan made it glaringly obvious where his inspirations were with Hitchcockian plot devices and even with making brief cameos in his films.

Practice your hate all you want, but we cannot deny him the fact nearly all of his films are suspenseful and scary, but somehow we’ve fallen prey to the merciless snake-pit of a world of film critics, who decided M. Night Shyamalan was not going to be part of the club any longer and whatever he does, the reviews he’d rake in can only get progressively worse. Interestingly, despite critical backlash, the audience has not quite agreed with what the professionals had to say…

MNS Chart 2

But guess what? The reviews aren’t the be-all-end-all in here – it’s the moviegoers who make the final call and even with callous reviews his last films have garnered – all of them made a profit. Even “The Last Airbender” that ‘won’ 5 Razzies turned out to make money after all. Could it be, because it was a kids’ movie? We can laugh all we want, but with the money this guy has made over the last 14 years, he could technically afford to make 10 more films budgeted at $150M, have no-one see them and still be in credit.

Therefore, I think it’s high time somebody put a stop to this madness. You’ve had your go (hell, even I said some hateful things about the guy in the past), but now it’s time to let him go about his day. You took his lunch money and gave him a wedgie – let him be and ask yourself a question, if per chance you claim to have hated Shyamalan’s movies because others told you to. If so, then make up your own mind instead. There’s no shame in saying you like Shyamalan’s films – I know I do. Even “The Happening”, which wasn’t exactly great, and “After Earth” that apart from being a substandard Sci-Fi, was in actuality quite nice when Shyamalan’s style could surface.

As it stands, the hate club has grown strong enough that Shyamalan’s name is absent from all the posters and trailers for his newest film and it should be a clear sign that the things have gone too far. He’s not a leper, y’know? He just chose to have a style and stuck with it, which doesn’t make him a one-trick pony – it makes him more of an auteur, I believe. If you hate abstract art, you wouldn’t take a day off work only to go and visit a gallery of modern art, now would you? Unless you’re a bit perverted and enjoy pain, but that’s not my problem…

Directors are people too and this one has had enough, don’t you agree? Maybe next time we should let him have his name on a poster for a change…

“After Earth” – M. Night Shyamalan’s last ditch effort

Summer turns out not to be the most friendly time of the year – especially when you are a film. The competition is fierce and all kinds of high-budget productions roam the screens in search for box office revenue. Therefore, if you are not a superhero flick or a high-profile Sci-Fi (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), you’re bound to be fighting an uphill battle to break even. The struggle is even harder if your director seems to be cursed. Therefore, I think ‘mixed feelings’ is the most polite way I could describe my state of mind when I was about to watch “After Earth” this afternoon.

Normally, if somebody told me that a name like Will Smith was just attached to the upcoming summer Sci-Fi flick, I’d be in all kinds of heaven. Let’s face it – his name is almost a brand at this point with titles like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “I, Robot”, “MiB” virtually guaranteeing high octane entertainment and phenomenal box office turnover. Normally… but “After Earth” was not supposed to be normal, not by a long shot… Because this film was being created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself – and once you mention his name in public, everybody starts staring at you, as if you just farted in a church or something. I don’t intend to digress too much here, because I already have it planned for a different occasion, but one thing was clear the minute I learned Shyamalan was helming this upcoming Sci-Fi film with Will Smith in it – it was going to be something else entirely. And I wasn’t far off in the end, but not the way I anticipated.

There are a bunch of little things that make up the bulk of “After Earth”, but the general concept can be summarized in the following way: at some point in the future, the mankind has finally succeeded in destroying the planet. Therefore, humans had to evacuate Earth and move their civilization somewhere else – to a planet called Nova Prime, which is of course capable of supporting life. In order to organize the move and later to protect the people from various threats, an organisation called The Ranger Corps was brought to life where the finest warriors could play their part in keeping the mankind safe.

Fast forward one thousand years; Nova Prime settlements have been troubled by an alien race that uses monsters that sense fear to hunt down humans, and only thanks to General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) the Rangers were able to turn the tide of the war. It turns out that Cypher learned how to dismiss fear entirely thus making himself completely invisible to Ursas (the fear-sensing monsters). Once he started teaching other rangers how to master his skill, everything was more or less fine again and Cypher returned home a hero.

afterearth-internationalposter-full

Now, back at home his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying desperately to become a ranger himself in order to prove his worth to the very distant father – and he fails, not because he lacks skill, but he has problems following orders and keeping in line. Understandably, Cypher being the military-type strict type of father is utterly disappointed in his son and the gap between the two keeps widening. Only because Kitai’s mom convinces Cypher to cut the kid some slack, he decides to take him on what is supposed to be his last mission before retiring – a perfect opportunity for the two to have some time to bond. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan and mid-voyage their spaceship gets badly damaged by an asteroid and crashes on Earth (quite conveniently; it is somehow explained in the dialogue, but I can’t recall the details now). The only problem is that Earth after a thousand years without humans is a dangerous place to live in – completely taken over by blood-thirsty animals that look at people the way people look at bacon.

It then turns out that Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash (with Cypher being badly injured) and the only way for them to contact their compatriots is to find a distress beacon that crashed somewhere else – a perfect opportunity for young Kitai to prove to his father once and for all that he could be a Ranger. In order to achieve that, however, Kitai will have to face all kinds of deadly animals, rapidly changing weather and an Ursa that had their ship had carried before it crashed.

Now that I have seen this film I can honestly say that M. Night Shyamalan felt a bit out of his depth developing a high-concept science fiction film and, as a result, “After Earth” is a very chaotic and uneven experience. Note here that I am specifically trying to use neutral wording in order to avoid jumping on the hate train. I realize it would have been much easier for me to go on a rant here and join the crowd, but I feel it would be unfair on my part, because – all things considered – I quite liked the film with all its flaws and shortcomings. Correction: not so much liked it, but I didn’t dislike it, if that makes any sense.

I believe it is only logical to start with the good bits. First of all, I think the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith will remain one of the strongest points of the film in general. For one thing, they naturally have some good chemistry going and most of the scenes with both of them in the room have this weird tension – in a good way. However, we don’t get to see those too much in the film, as the bulk of “After Earth” is simply Jaden running around alone in the jungle with his father watching his every step from the safety of the wreckage. Jaden on his own acts nowhere near as good as when he is with his dad and no amount of Will Smith’s solid acting could possibly make up for that fact.

The contraptions used by the characters are also nice additions to the film. From the biologically inspired design of the spaceship with its bone-like skeleton, squishy buttons and tissue-like membranes for doors, through the mutating suit worn by Kitai, all the way up to the shape-shifting Ranger weapon – all the props in the film are designed very interestingly. Also, the CG modelling of the Ursa was quite clever, although the concept alone of a creature that finds its prey by tracking its fear was a tad underdeveloped.

 

Well, that’s all, folks… I like the premise of the film as well and I secretly hoped it would trump the ghastly “Oblivion”, but “After Earth” didn’t quite deliver. While the concept alone was more or less OK and maybe I could buy it, in the end the film offered a bit too much bulls**t to swallow in one go. I really dug the political commentary of how the planet will force us out and make sure we don’t come back, but I feel the script (co-written by Shyamalan again) would have been better if it was developed by someone experienced in designing universes from the foundations up, so that it would be actually believable and not full of gaping holes. Even though most of Shyamalan’s films involve supernatural elements, he clearly is not cut out for a job of that calibre. As much as I like the guy and understand where he’s coming from, “After Earth” ended up smothering him completely. When it comes to twists and turns and putting the characters in peril, that’s all fine and, even though it is rather expected for the characters to come out alive, he had me sitting at the edge of my seat quite a few times.

Nonetheless, a good sci-fi needs a bit more than that. While it was perfectly OK for “The Sixth Sense” to concentrate on only two characters and more importantly on fooling the viewers, “After Earth” needed a completely different approach – one that it never got. It almost looked, as though Shyamalan was forced to direct it without being able to think it through, because neither the character dynamic is established well enough to drive the film, nor the sci-fi aspect is compelling enough to be believable. A good sci-fi either requires a fully established mythos that breathes life into the world, or it needs to be completely cut off and self-contained – with no middle ground. The middle ground is where the mediocre sci-fi films go to die. Of course, it is more than welcome to expand on the cut-off variation and introduce the world in sequels or in lateral plot points, but unfortunately “After Earth” cannot be successfully assigned to any of these categories. In the end, Shyamalan tried to cook two dishes at once and he burned them both.

And I haven’t even touched on the leaps in logic and poor understanding of science that served as foundation for the entire universe in the film. I think “After Earth” would have benefited from a bit more science and less fiction. Maybe it takes a mere thousand years for the earth to go completely green again with oxygen levels being weirdly too low for humans to breath comfortably! Photosynthesis much? Also, how can anything evolve to kill humans if the humans are not around any more? It’s impossible by definition and a thousand years is nowhere near enough for anything to evolve into anything else. Luckily, the animals in the movie look mostly normal… Clearly, nobody over there knew how to tackle Sci-Fi properly. Since we live in the 21st century, we require our Sci-Fi to be properly done and fancy costumes and spaceships don’t cut it any longer.

I dare say that “After Earth” was most probably an ‘all or nothing’ move from M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the Smith family who produced the picture kept pushing the studio to film their project and Shyamalan’s name was attached to it, because no-one else would do it… I don’t know, but the entire thing smells fishy to me. I mean, it is not even a full-blown Shyamalan movie, but it’s truncated surrogate and I can only explain it by thinking that the producers had more to say about what goes in the movie than the director would have liked. Therefore, I think it’s unfair to flog poor Shyamalan any longer, because it might not have been his fault entirely for what “After Earth” ended up being. Love it or hate it, but this guy has his style of story-telling and in here I could barely see it, as if somebody explicitly told him not to do what he knows best…

In short, “After Earth” looks like a collection of clichés and well-worn ideas slapped together for the benefit of Will Smith and his son, dressed in poorly engineered universe and thrown into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan for him to make something coherent of it. A good artist can make music using anything for an instrument, but it won’t be a symphony… Don’t get me wrong, there are some good moments in the film and once the ball is rolling, the story develops some suspense (and this is what Shyamalan really knows how to do), but Sci-Fi needs more than that. Still, it was better than “Oblivion”…

Shortcake #13 – “Concrete”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be granted one wish, a wish so powerful that regardless of what you think of, it would come true? Of course you have… Everybody has… When they were little, or just immature…

 

But seriously, imagine that somewhere out there there’s a box that opens only once every hundred years and in it you’ll find whatever you just wished for. And this is what “Concrete” is all about – a guy who is about to make his wish, but is brutally interrupted by a nosy cleaning lady. I don’t know about you, but I had a good laugh watching it. It’s nice and short, very compact even. The film in itself is very professionally shot, but that doesn’t really matter because the whole 6 minutes you’ll be thinking of what is in the box (every time I write or say the phrase ‘what’s in the box’, I say it in my head in Brad Pitt’s voice…). Because, of course, the wish-granting box is most likely a kind of a scumbag; you don’t really have to make a wish to get it to work, you need to think of something… concrete…

“Concrete” is actually not a stand-alone picture (well, it is per se), but a part of “Imagination” series and I will make sure to go through them all. Anyway, before I did, I just wanted to write a couple of words about “Concrete” , because it was just so good. And also because the whole time I kept thinking about a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man…

staypuft

In summary, I have to tip my hat to Daniel Benmayor who directed this little film, because it just made my morning and hopefully the whole day. Well done, sir!

“The Purge” – a hipster home invasion flick…

Now that a week has passed with me not writing anything at all, I think it is high time I got back in stride. It turns out that computers don’t like me at all lately and my laptop needed to be fixed again (or should I say, should have been fixed in the first place), so I spent the last two weeks like an animal – without the internet and everything. Well, not exactly, because I still have my tablet, but trying to blog on a touchscreen is a recipe for a violent outburst of rage. Now that my laptop had most of its insides removed and replaced and I got it up and running again, I can go back to what I like doing. I can’t promise high frequency output yet, because I’m in the middle of moving house, but I’ll do what I can.

It would also appear that my unfortunate impediment in blogging capability coincided with a temporary draught in decent films hitting the screens. Correction: ‘decent’ might be a bit too generous of a term; it’s summer after all and good films remain in hiding whilst superheroes and the like roam the screens. It got to a point that last weekend there was nothing playing in the cinemas that I actually wanted to watch. Well, had I had a bit more time during the week, I would have caught up with ”Mud” playing in QFT (my local art-house cinema), but when I actually managed to free up some time, it was already gone. Oh well… There’s always Blu Ray… Still I ended up cinema-starved for nearly two weeks, because I’m not going to see “The Hangover Part 3” or “Fast and Furious 6”. I only liked the first “Hangover” and I could barely stand the first two “Fast and Furious” instalments so I decided to wait it out.

Among the films that popped up this weekend I noticed “The Purge” and I recalled reading a little bit about it and being rather surprised the marketing campaign for it was virtually inexistent. Mainly because I thought I could use a break from Sci-Fi and superhero flicks, I figured – what the hell.

I have always had a special place in my heart for horror films. Well, I had three – for horror, Sci-Fi and action films, because this particular trio of genres played a crucial role in moulding me into what I am today. And good horrors are hard to come by lately only with “Evil Dead” living up to my standard, “Mama” being sort of OK and “Dark Skies” disappointing me quite a lot. Therefore, I was quite happy to see “The Purge”.

the-purge-poster

Right, so the film can be described in two ways: in a quick way, or with more waffle, and I’ll start with the latter. “The Purge” is an excerpt from a dystopian universe where the US has been reborn as a nation where there’s little to no crime, everyone is happy, the streets are made of chocolate, unicorns run freely in the wild and little angels bring flowers to children every morning. Well, maybe that’s a bit too far-fetched, but the point is that America is the happiest place on Earth, because once every year for 12 hours the big brother turns a blind eye on everything. That’s right – every year on the night of the 21st of March the law is not in place and any criminal activity, up to and including murder, is perfectly legal and it constitutes the annual purge. This way apparently the society cleanses itself by releasing the rage and hatred bottled up inside by killing strangers, settling debts or just feeding their carnivorous lusts. And little do you know – it works. Those who don’t want to participate in the purge and can afford sophisticated provisions spend the night inside their heavily fortified houses, while the others (the poor) do what they can to stay alive, when the willing to purge patrol the streets with guns and machetes, or what have you. And here we are – in a house of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) – a successful businessman who made a fortune manufacturing and selling home security systems for the annual purges as James, his wife (Lena Headey) and children become targets of a bunch of masked psychotic strangers led by a Joker lookalike (Rhys Wakefield) after they make a terrible mistake of harbouring a homeless person (Edwin Hodge), who was clearly trying to flee the murderous crowd.

And that’s the long synopsis. The shorter one reads as follows: it’s a home invasion flick about a family that needs to face masked men hell-bent on hacking them to bits with axes and machetes. And it all takes place in a setting where they can’t just call the police.

Now, home invasion films should in theory work regardless of the setting, because of all the horrors one would be able to imagine, a scenario where a family is targeted by psychos (nothing supernatural, just regular deviants) is a possibility for all of us. And that’s what makes it so scary. Normally, for a film like that to make sense (“When a stranger calls”, “Strangers”) the plot requires some sort of a device to make you believe these people are stranded and have to fend for themselves, i.e. the phone lines are off due to a storm, the house is really secluded or something to that effect. “The Purge” goes a step further to invent an entire universe to serve that purpose and I wasn’t quite convinced it was necessary. Surely, we could try and draw parallels to our own world and make it look like this film is trying to comment on the divide between the rich and the poor, but it’s all superficial. At the end of the day, “The purge” is just a thriller and once it’s trying to be something more than that, it looks fake.

 

I have no problems with the execution of the film, because the acting and the technical side of things are rather OK (although I would point out that waddling around the house in the dark with a flash-light doesn’t help you see better, but helps the killer see you better). Where the film suffers the most is its premise. It almost looks like the entire idea for “The purge” originated in a pub over a couple of pints, as though a couple of guys were pondering the idea of being able to kill someone without any consequences. The idea needed some more meat, so they layered it onto a world (in near future of course, but I think it could have just as well been skipped) where the government sanctions deviant behaviour once a year.’ In for a penny in for a pound’ and so we are now presented with a fully working world with companies that make money off of the purge, with the socio-economic repercussions of said purge that suggest that letting the country eliminate the poor and defenceless, the homeless, the jobless, all contribute to the society. Surely, if you eliminate the jobless, you will artificially deflate the unemployment rate, so the film makers accounted for all that with the commentaries from ‘scientists’ we can see here and there trying to sprinkle some long words on the subject. And at the end, we are presented with a huge layered cake with chocolate fountains, raisins, nuts, strawberries and everything, when all we wanted was a cupcake.

“The purge” really looks like a lot of work to achieve so little, because the film makers (with James DeMonaco helming the project; not very experienced as a director) made up a world so bullet-proof that they needed the characters to go out of their ways and do dumb things to bring the danger upon themselves. And that pretty much sums it all up – “The Purge” is one gargantuan case of overkill. When you make up a whole world to place a home invasion story in it – you’re doing it wrong and you clearly have some unresolved issues. I don’t know, maybe DeMonaco really wanted to make fantasy films that actually require that level of thought in designing a universe, but here it’s simply secondary to everything else. Moreover, it looks as if the film makers were more concerned with the external setting for the story and they forgot to get the villain right, or make the pacing consistent (with major twists scattered thoughtlessly around the picture), and most of all they really required a string of terribly stupid events to get the action rolling.

Fortunately enough, “The purge” may have lasted for 12 hours, but only 85 minutes in real time, so it was over before I could get seriously fed up with it. Don’t get me wrong – I kind of enjoyed it – but if you take the whole fancy dressing away – it was a sloppy home invasion flick with ambitions to be something more.